Vintage View: 'Gossip benches' are unfortunately not written about

Kya deLongchamps says there is very little written about ‘gossip benches’ — or telephone tables — and only designer rarities are sought after in the secondhand market

PICTURE poor Vikki Carr thrown down over her teak telephone table sobbing into her go-go sequins in the hit song of 1967: ‘It’s him, it’s him, it must be him, but it’s not him, no, it’s not him — and then I die’ (Seul Sur Son Étoile/Gilbert Bécaud).

What happened to the hefty clatter of the bakelite into the cradle, the shill nerve-raking trill, the very presence of a working telephone sitting proud on its own furniture?

Once loosened from the umbilical cord to the wall, and ranging across the house from a remote base, still the weight of a house brick in the ’80s, the status of the home phone just seemed to die like Vikki’s romantic fantasies.

American families, too over-scheduled to commit to single-tasking, put 20-feet of twisted elastic cable on their wall phones and wandered most of the one-floor ranch, in-call. There’s very little written about telephone tables.

They are something of an acute embarrassment in the second-hand market and all but designer-rarities, make nothing. This saddens me, as gossip benches (as some describe them) are actually a lovely compact edit of the best of mid-century design and social aspirations.

My grandmother used most of the under-the-stairs area to enthrone the white clunky film-noir 300 Series BT phone (c 1932). It was a delicious, chic little booth, politely apart from the domestic drag with a mirror to fiddle with your face while chatting through the crackle.

The desk was glossy wood laminate edged in stamped brass — thrilling post-war materials. The additional wall hung bell-set was loud enough to make your ears bleed, and there were resultant startled skid marks through the Curragh wool pile from the kitchen, rounding the bend to the front hall.

Nana would set the rotary dialler a-purr with a pencil stub, copying the movie stars of Hollywood with their jewelled devices from Tiffany.

Having a dedicated table for the phone was a very 18th-century idea. The Georgians littered the multiple entertainments that made up their housebound round, with specialised tables. There were tables intended for cards, supper, sewing, tea taking, gaming, breakfasting, writing, serving, dressing, and reading large leather-bound tomes in the library on a library table.

Standing telephones appeared in the 1890s, descending from the wall and tiny telephone desk shelves into housings for the bell-unit with a cradle for the receiver which depressed to end the connection.

By the 1930s the homes of the burgeoning middle class would include a telephone table with a modest seat as a polite standard in the chill of the downstairs hall.

Most tables include a shallow bench or fully armed chair with a surface cocked to one side for the telephone to sit on, detailed with at least one shelf for the telephone book.

There might be a drawer for other necessaries, but the job was to allow the user to sit in style and privacy while they spoke on the telephone. There can be six or four legs depending on design, with or without a chair back.

Set in a communal area like a hallway, they didn’t take up much room, just the legs of the sitter forced out from the back to the wall position. As a time of design flux, styling can be awkward with regency dining chairs clamped to Danish shelving.

Salon chaise styles with fully buttoned backs and carved knees over Queen Anne shanks were popular for the Hyacinth Bouquet division.

In the 1950s, the streamlined Scandinavian influences pushed mahogany neo-classics aside in progressive homes thankfully producing some still worthy, low-slung, sleek telephone tables.

Look out for these later eye-catching examples in rosewood and ebonised (black) wood combined with chrome and smoked glass, favoured by the French and Italians.

British tables were headed up by Nathan-plan, Chippy Heath (yes, please) and Ercol, who made a lovely table-seat based on their iconic ash, spindle-back sofa.

Semi-lune marble and metal telephone shelves intended to stand at or use with a stool also appear regularly as second-hand orphans — best relegated to pier table work or the conservatory.

CLEARLY, with their role obliterated by the roaming phone, the telephone table can still be reupholstered and used to dress an entrance hall as a perch for taking off shoes (if the joints and legs allow).

Roomier, well padded examples can be deployed as a retreat, to sit and read. Slip a piece of safety glass over finer woods and even interesting Formica tops to protect them and relegate the piece to occasional use, not legs-up teenage abuse.

Looking past vintage for something new and worthy to support the landline or your charger in trilling state? Might I make the call and suggest the highly celebrated Fonteyn, in red, a gorgeous tight walnut bound chest on mid-century led kick legs, perfect for bedside use too, at €282 from designer Steuart Padwick.

The entire Fonteyn collection which now includes beds, desks, and consoles — really rings that bell, made.com.


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